Traditional Viking Religion
Traditional Viking Religion The Vikings’ religious beliefs were constantly changing and evolving. They had many different ways of worshiping, and viewing their gods. It was dependent completely on where you lived, in what era, and what your social class was, though the Vikings weren’t very strict on this. Most of these beliefs were recorded after Christianity had already taken hold of the Viking culture. But, it seems that under their outer appearance of ‘good little Christians’, they were still telling the stories based on their original beliefs.
These stories and myths ended up being documented in three different ways: Poetic Edda, Skaldic poetry, and Prose Edda. Poetic Edda was a compilation of poems written in Iceland just after the mid-thirteenth century. They came from all over Scandinavia, which includes the countries of present-day Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Skaldic poetry was written mostly in the ninth century, but is very complex, and therefore difficult for most people to understand. The Icelandic poet, politician, and historian, Snorri Sturluson, wrote Prose Edda in the 1220s.
Prose Edda is the most commonly used resource on Viking mythology today, because it was Sturluson’s goal to revive (but also explain) the skaldic art. Along with his poems, he had a key of sorts that made understanding his work possible. (Wolf 148-149) Some Vikings believed that the world was made up of several circles of different worlds; all of them connected in some way. Others believed in the nine worlds that were all connected by the world tree, referred to as Yggdrasil (Roberts). Yggdrasil was at the center of the world, and had nine roots, each root branching out to one of the worlds.
At the bottom of everything was Niflheim, the world of the dead. This realm is ruled by the death-goddess, Hel. She named a portion of Niflheim after herself. Unlike its Christian counterpart when it comes to the world of the dead, Niflheim is a land of ice, not fire. There is a root leading into Niflheim, and one leading directly into Hel. Then came the land of the giants, Jotunheim. It is also sometimes called Utgard (Wolf 149); it was mostly known as the land of monsters, and enemies of the gods. After this, came a realm that there isn’t much to known about: Nidavellir, the realm of dwarfs.
Next came three realms of almost equal rank. The two elf lands, Svartalfheim, the land of the dark elves, and Alfheim, the domain of the light elves. Alfheim was thought to be at the same level as the middle world, where humans dwelt, known as wither Midgard or The Middle Yard. Then at the top of everything were the two different major realms where gods lived: Asgard, where the Aesier gods and goddesses lived, and Vanaheim, where the Vanier (another tribe of gods and goddesses that were more nature focused than the Asier) lived. In Asgard and Vanaheim each deity lived in his or her own kingdom.
It was believed that a flaming rainbow bridge called Bifrost, connected Midgard to the worlds where the gods lived. There were also two other realms that weren’t connected to Yggdrasil. These were Muspell, and Ginnungagap. Muspell was the land of the Fire Giants, and demons, ruled by Surt (Roberts), who plays a vital role in both the beginning and the end of the world. Ginnungagap is the Void of Chaos, where life began. It separates Niflheim and Muspell. In the beginning, before even humans or gods there were three realms: Muspell, Niflheim, and Ginnungagap.
In between Muspell and Niflheim two creatures were formed; a gargantuan frost giant, Ymir, and a huge cow, Andumla. Ymir drank some of Andumal’s milk and grew strong. After this development, the first giants sprung out of Ymir’s legs and armpits (Roberts). Then while Andumla was licking the salty ice, it uncovered the first god: Buri. He had a son by a giantess, Bestla. This son, Bor, fathered three sons with the giantess Bestla: Odin, Vili, and Ve (godchecker ink. ). These three got into a fight with Ymir, and managed to kill him; in the way all classic heroes kill monsters.
Then, after hauling the frost giant’s body to the middle of Ginningagap, they created the world with him. Using his flesh for land, bones for mountains, and his blood for water. Ymir’s skull formed the vault of the sky. Still-glowing embers from Muspell were used for the sun, moon, and stars. The first tree was Yiggdrasil. It was supposed to support the entire universe. The nine realms were built off it. They then made the first man and woman out of trees, an ash and an elm that they had found washed up on the shore. From the ash and a tree trunk they made Ask, the first man.
From the Elm they created the first woman, Embla. At the base of Yiggdrasil lived the three norns. These were the goddesses of destiny. They represent past, present and future, and spin everyone’s destiny. Urd works with past, Verdandi deals with the present, and Skuld decides the future. It was also their job to take care of Yiggdrasil. They watered the land as well as repaired any damage done to the tree. They were very different from the rest of the gods. They didn’t go around having love lives, and getting mixed up in feuds of all sorts of trouble. There is one thing that the norns cannot save Yiggdrasil from.
At the end of the world, Ragnarok, the world tree itself will be destroyed. The Viking story of the end of the world is the end of the entire universe. Everyone except a few select gods and two humans perish. Before the great battle between the gods and the evil creatures, a dark age comes upon the earth. For three years it is a dark winter. In this time the world of men will be consumed in war with everyone fighting each other. Family ties are broken, and become friendships forgotten. These relationships are vastly important to Vikings. To have them be destroyed would seem very wrong to any Viking.
To top it all off the sun, moon, and stars disappear, leaving the world in darkness. The land is shaken with terrible earthquakes, causing trees to uproot, and mountains to topple. These earthquakes also free the wolf, Fenrir, and his father, the trickster god Loki from their bonds. Fenrir was imprisoned when he grew too big, strong, and wild to be kept as a pet in Asgard. A magical ribbon was the only thing capable of restraining him. But before this, he bit off the hand of his trainer, Tyr. Loki was imprisoned when he was accused correctly of causing the death of Odin’s favorite son, Baldur.
The earthquakes also anger the great Midgard Serpent deep in the ocean. The serpent will come on land, and spew its terribly poisonous venom everywhere. Along with these creatures, all of the other enemies of the gods, such as the giants and the demons of Muspell (led by Surt), will come together and attack the worlds of humans, and cross Bifrost to attack the gods. All of the gods will fight to defend their realm, and that of the humans. However, even with all of their strength, they will fail. Fenrir kills Odin. But Vidar, one of Odin’s many sons, avenges Odin’s death.
Thor is poisoned by the Midgard Serpent’s venom after killing it. Surt kills Freyr, because Freyr doesn’t have his sword. After killing Freyr, Surt catches the earth aflame, and burns it all up. Then what is left of the earth will sink beneath the sea. But that is not the end. Not of everything. Yiggdrasil still exists. In it’s branches, two humans, Lif and Lifthrasir (godchecker ink. ), were protected. Also Vidar, leading several other gods have survived. As well as these Baldr and Hod come back from the dead to help recreate earth, and rule the gods.
The three most commonly worshiped gods were Frey(r), Odin, and Thor. In several instances statues of the three of them were found together, usually with Thor in the center, and Frey and Odin at his sides. These three covered most of the needs of the Viking people, which include the needs of farmers, sailors, warriors, poets, and noblemen. It isn’t a surprise why these three were the main gods. As well as Frey, Thor, and Odin there were many other gods. In Norse mythology there are dozens of different gods, each playing a different role. Odin, for a while, was the head god.
He is the god of war, revenge, wisdom, poetry, and magic. His belongings are Gungir, a spear that always hits its mark, and Draupnir, a magical gold ring that can duplicate itself. Dwarves made these items, as well as most of the god’s enchanted tools. He also had five animal allies: two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Munninn (memory), two wolves, Freki and Geri, as well as his eight-legged horse, Loki’s son, Sleipnir. He was a bit knowledge-hungry instead of the usual: power-hungry. Once upon a time, Odin gave one of his eyes to the Well of Mimir for the right to drink from the well.
The Well bestowed great knowledge to him. This Well of Mimir lies at the base of Yiggdrasil. Another time he was said to have hung himself on Yiggdrasil for the right to know all about the runes, so he could teach man, and his gods to be literate and even more powerful. Nobles, warriors, poets and magic-users (magicians, seers, mystics…) commonly worshiped Odin. They all gave sacrifices to him. He was worshiped by the nobles because he himself was pretty much god royalty. Odin was also very interested in politics, and these worshippers hoped that he could help them in their thinking.
The poets worshiped Odin, because he had drunk some of the poetry mead (alcoholic beverage). This made Odin very talented with his words. So they worshiped him to gain his knowledge of language. He was also a good muse, for those poets lacking inspiration. But if Odin were used as a muse, then of course Odin would be pleased, and help them with their skills. So worshipping Odin was helpful for many poets. Odin was very practiced in the art of magic. So it was thought to be beneficial for any user of magic to ask for his favor. Odin however, wasn’t the only god versed in magical arts.
Any other gods who knew much about magic could be called upon. Odin was not the only option. Warriors gave sacrifices to Odin before battles, praying for victory. To gain his favor one would usually give sacrifices of either animals or humans (Roberts). But sometimes this wasn’t good enough. Odin usually got his warrior worshippers killed during battle. Many of these warriors were the dreaded berserkers, who either took a drug-like-substance or riled themselves up so that they fought like fierce animals. As you can see, he clearly had a very violent, brutal, and insane side.
The beautiful Valkyries, Odin’s shield maidens, took these dead men away. The dead men were brought to Valhalla, Odin’s hall. There, the warriors fought battles with each other all day, then ate and caroused all night. Then they did it all over again. Any wounds suffered were miraculously healed at the end of each battle. Odin is officially married to Frigg, but, like many other pagan gods, has many affairs with many other women. He had many children with goddesses and giantesses of all sorts. His most well known children are: Baldr, Thor, Heimdal, Ty, Hod, Vidar, and Valdi.
The god who was worshiped the most overall was Thor. This was because he was so easy to relate to, since his talents were those that most people wanted supporting them. He was a fabulous warrior, but he was also the god of farming and storm (and therefore was the weather) god. So he was worshiped by all of the common people: farmers and seamen. Because Thor became really popular in the ninth and tenth centuries, he was the chief rival of Christ, when the Christians were trying to convert all of the Vikings. This was one of the reasons it took so long to convert all of the Vikings.
Thor also had some special items that helped him out in battle. His hammer, Mjolnir, iron belt and gauntlet gloves. The hammer never missed its target, and always returns to Thor after it has been thrown, like a boomerang. The iron belt gives Thor the strength needed to throw the heavy hammer; and the gloves give him the strength in his wrists to catch the hammer when it returns to him. Thor was very prepared for physical combat. Hammer amulets (representing Thor) were widely popular throughout Scandinavia. Scads of them have been found in archeological digs. This proves how beloved by the Vikings he was.
Also, in later years of the Viking period, during Thor’s “prime”, he was at the center of monuments, bearing images of him, Odin, as well as Frey. One of the best things about Thor, at least in the minds of the Viking people, is that there were never human sacrifices given to him. At least there were never any records hinting at it. He was a kind god, and protected his people in all of the myths about him. Sacrifices of animals and valuable objects (weapons, jewelry, especially fancy tools) were given to him in times of danger from famine or plague. This proves the people’s trust in his kindheartedness. The third most popular god was Frey.
He was the god of fertility. Actually the only know male god of fertility. Sacrifices were made to him at weddings to promote the fertility of the couple. Being a god of fertility also made him the “ecology god”, which made him god of meadows, farming, fisheries, and food in general. Since his father is Niord, the sea god, Frey has some power over the sea as well. Because of this position, he became the god of ship builders too. His magically special object is a ship. It can shrink and be folded up so that he can carry it around in his pocket. But still be large enough, when unfolded, to carry all of the gods.
Frey is associated with ship funerals. Wealthier worshippers of Frey would be buried on land in ships filled with typical loot, which was a type of tcommon Viking burial. He was forced to give away his sword in the long arduous process of wooing his beautiful giantess wife, Gerd. So, worshippers of Frey don’t carry swords to honor and respect him. As well as not tolerating swords, outlaws of any kind are not permitted in his presence. Frey had a twin sister: Freya, who was the most widely celebrated of all the pagan goddesses. She is at the center of many myths. She was, like her brother, a goddess of fertility.
She was also a goddess of magic known as Sied (Wolf, 151), love, and the leader of the Valkyries. She was married to Od (who might have been a version of Odin), but he left her for another. She was sad, as she had truly loved him, but was strong enough to move on easily. She had rather loose morals, and “slept around” quite a bit. Using her sexual prowess she was able to get the necklace of sensuality from the four dwarves who had made it. As well as being the head of the Valkyries, she was the head of the Thedisir, a group of goddesses who are attached to a particular place, or type of object.
This made her closely connected with guardian spirits otherwise known as fylgjur. These spirits protect certain special places, such as places of natural beauty, and the homes of their worshippers. Bragi is the god who recites poetry. He is the god of all bards and storytellers. He loves to learn, and promotes others to do likewise. His wife, Idun grows the fruit of immortality: golden apples. The laboring god, Weyland is a blacksmith. He is the God of experience, and a master craftsman. He was created because the people of Iceland wanted a god that wasn’t warlike, and who was actually a useful person. (Meadows) Weyland was that god.
The god of justice and law was Tyr. He was a loyal man, and fought for his leader, usually Odin. He looses a hand to Fenrir because he trusts him. This shows his ability to blindly trust, and think the best of people. That was his best trait. Though when he did learn something foul about someone, they’d better beware because one-handed or not, he is a valiant warrior. Heimdall was the guardian of the rainbow bridge, Bifrost. He had a special horn to sound, warning the other gods, when he saw Surt’s great army approaching, announcing that the great battle of Ragnarok was to commence. He is the son of Odin and the nine wave sisters.
Odin’s official wife, Frigg was the mother of all, protector of children, and associated with child bearing and the home. She has a sacred “Distaff of life” that she uses to spin for the “Fabric of the Universe”. She has the power to see into the future, and is the best of all the gods in this area. Loki is the trickster god. He was both a friend and an enemy to the gods. He is always stirring up trouble. He is the parent of many of the great monsters. As an outcome of his affair with Angrbodi (a beautiful giantess) he fathered the death goddess, Hel, the monsterous wolf, Fenrir, and the midgard serpent.
His only legitimate offspring was Narfi, his son. Narfi doesn’t play a very large role. When he transformed into a mare, as part of a plan to save Freya, he begot Odin’s mount, Sleipnir One time Loki got into too much trouble. When he tricked the blind Hod into killing his beautiful brother Baldyr (sons of Odin), it was decided that he had gone too far. Because of his numerous crimes, he was tied up with Narfi’s guts, and imprisoned in a cave with only his wife to ease his suffering, until Ragnarok, when he rides with Surt to destroy the gods. As the Daughter of Loki, Hel had a lot to live up to.
In anticipation of her evil tendencies, Odin sent her to Niflheim, and made her the goddess of the underworld, and the dead. She doesn’t like it down there very much, and resents Odin for this. To get back at him she also joins her father and Surt for Ragnarok. Surt was “The Destroyer”. He is the leader of the fire demons, and is a key player in the final battle of Ragnarok. He miraculously survives Ragnarok, so that he can do it all over next time round. No one was said to worship him. He was the closest thing to Christianity’s Lucifer. The Vikings had to have places to worship, or not worship in some cases like Surt.
Most of the Vikings worshiped outside. In holy groves and meadows that had rocks, small hills, and swamps where they placed their offerings. These places were sometimes specific for gods, but most of the time the places were just general places of worship. As well as these outdoor places of worship there were also in-town places such as holy rocks, wells and other objects. In different places, at certain times worshippers had festivals to celebrate the gods. One such festival was held every nine years. Nine men, as well as nine each of different sorts of animals (all male) were sacrificed.
Their blood was presented to an idol, and their bodies were strung up in a nearby sacred grove. Sacrifices that were given to the gods were mostly animals such as dogs, horses, and farm animals. They were thrown into rivers, tossed off cliffs, and hung on trees in sacred groves for their blood to drain out into the holy ground. Human sacrifices were made sometimes. It was not an every-day occasion. Only for special occasions such as a festival, when a god’s help was especially needed, or when there was another important event, such as the death of an important man.
There were often temples for the gods in Viking villages. The local chieftain or leader maintained each temple. The heads of the other main households always aided them. A classic example of a Viking funeral is this: the body is cleaned, dressed with normal clothing, and buried in the ground with items the person might need in the afterlife. Such as food, drink, weapons, tools, and other such things. There would often be dead animals such as horses, dogs, chickens, and sometimes their wife/servant/slave. Often times the dead would be set in an underground room in a bed with all of their belongings around them.
Some Vikings believed that the spirit lived on as a ghost. Either in the underground tomb their body was left in, in a special haunted hill with the rest of the family, or close to their family as a protector. The alternate funeral would be to burn the body. This was especially common for Odin’s worshippers, and people in general who died in battle, so that they would be sent straight up to Valhalla, and to that fabulous hall of fallen warriors. The Vikings weren’t all that different from any other polytheistic religion of the time. Most of their gods represented desirable human qualities; just like the Greek/Roman gods.
They had a creation story, and a destruction story (apocalypse). They bury and burn their dead; just like we do today. The Vikings also believed in a sort of heaven, and in ghosts. Their religion isn’t all that different from any other. They aren’t barbaric pagans; they weren’t the only culture to sacrifice humans and animals to their gods. They Viking religion is similar to other religions, but at the same time it has it’s own mythology and myths that are very unique. The Norse religion is just a religion, with its special characteristics that have transferred from the Viking way of life over into their religion.
They needed strong, warlike gods because during the age of Vikings there was a lot of fighting going on. The Vikings made their gods able to defend them form the other evils in the world; ones that the Vikings couldn’t take care of without help. Like any other people would have if they lived in the same conditions. The Christian God of the day would smite badly behaved people, and sent them to hell. The Crusades, that the whole of Christian Europe was involved in, was all about fighting. Norse mythology and religion had their Gods constantly fighting he giants and monsters; it was a way the Vikings expressed their part in all of the violence.
Bibliography: Godchecker Ink. “Viking Gods of Norse Mythology. ” www. godchecker. com, January 31, 2010 < http://www. godchecker. com/pantheon/norse-mythology. php >. This resource was mostly helpful. It was a good reference point. Its facts were all very straightforward, and it had information about almost all of the places and people mentioned in Norse mythology. The one problem with the site is that it was written in a very modern style. With innuendoes, and annoying, uneducated slang and inferior language. I used it only to reference my other sources.
Jovinelly, Joan, and Netelkos, Jason. The crafts and culture of the Vikings. New York, Ny: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc, 2002. Most of this book was craft projects for children. But in the page or two of information about Viking religion, I was told about the most important aspects of Viking religion. Which was very important for the organization of my paper. It also had all of the things that I knew that had to be in my paper. I don’t want to be less informative than a children’s book.
Meadows, Edmund. “The Pre Ragnarok Viking Gods. www. viking-z. org, January 31, 2010 < http://www. viking-z. org/vikg. html >. This source was a bit overwhelming. It had a lot of information that I used, but a lot of things mixed in that either was a bit too deep, or that were about actually practicing the Viking religion. So I was forced to look through it all, and pick out the things that were relevant to my paper. But on the bright side, the information I found was very good, and it helped me a great deal with my research.
Roberts, Judson. “Myth and Religion. ” www. strongbowsaga. com, date accessed lt;http://www. strongbowsaga. com/introduction. asp>. This essay I found on the strongbow saga website was very useful. It had important information on all of the topics I planned to cover in the course of my paper. There was a detailed account on all of the main gods and supernatural beings. As well as information on the worship practices of the Vikings. There was also, included in the manuscript, the best description I could find on the creation of the earth story. With a decent telling of the end of the world.
Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life In The Viking Age. London, England: Jarrold and Sons Ltd, 1967. This resource was very similar to Daily Life of the Vikings. It had a lot of the same information. The main difference was that it was older and contained pictures relating to the gods, or rites described in the passage. But it, as was the former, was very useful, and had a lot of information. Including a shocking account of a Viking funeral. That was one of the best things about these two books. They had passages from the journals of people who had witnessed Viking religious rites. It was good to get first hand accounts.
Wolf, Kirsten. Daily Life of The Vikings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. This book was exceedingly helpful. It gave me a lot of invaluable information on subjects the other sources hardly touched on. Such as the sources for all of the knowledge we have of Viking religion today. It also tells about each of the important gods, and Viking practices involving worship, funerals, and the dead. It turns out that the Vikings were very superstitious of their dead people. It was very entertaining to read about.
Unknown. “Meet the Gods and Goddesses of the Norse Pantheon. www. wizardrealm. com, Janurary 31, 2010 < http://www. wizardrealm. com/norse/gods. html >. This went into a lot of detail about each and every one of the known Norse gods. It was very useful in the portion of my report where I was talking about all of the important Viking gods. But sadly, it wasn’t very special, and didn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t have gotten from another of my resources. The best thing I can say about it is that is condensed the information about each god nicely. But there always has to be one (or two) of those.